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Frank Gets Really Frank : Twenty-six years ago, as a vain young man, Frank Langella appeared in the first production at the Mark Taper Forum. Now, as busy as ever, he is happily embracing the new and differing roles maturity offers

<i> Barbara Isenberg is a Times staff writer</i>

In 1967, Frank Langella headed west to play Urbain Grandier in John Whiting’s “The Devils,” the Mark Taper Forum’s inaugural production. The part called for Grandier’s head to be shaved, but the young actor refused. Langella “had a beautiful head of hair, and he didn’t want it shaved,” recalls the Taper’s founding artistic director, Gordon Davidson. “We finally had to create a bald pate for him.”

Things change. Langella is back at the Taper playing Urgentino, the Doge of Venice--in Howard Barker’s “Scenes From an Execution,” which closes today--wearing his own short-cropped gray hair and beard. And as White House Chief of Staff Bob Alexander in Ivan Reitman’s film, “Dave,” he not only declined makeup but also was willing to gain 30 pounds.

Langella has made a big leap from the sexy, swaggering George Prager in “Diary of a Mad Housewife,” his romantic, albeit bloodthirsty Transylvanian Count in “Dracula” or even his Valmont in “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” at the Ahmanson a few years ago.

Davidson thinks Langella has aged well--"like fine wine"--and so, essentially, does Langella. “Both Urgentino and Bob Alexander are free performances of mine,” the actor says. “Whether you like them or not, both are honest performances. They are how I am now.”

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Step into Langella’s dressing room at the Taper, the very same dressing room he had 26 years ago. He looks great at 55--tall and lean in white shirt, black slacks and boots. And, he says--at least publicly--he enjoys playing more mature roles. Actors act, and actors age.

He went to New York at 21 and won three Obies before he was 30. He made his Broadway debut in 1975, playing a talking lizard in Edward Albee’s “Seascape,” and wound up winning a Tony for best supporting actor.

His first two films, both released in 1970, were Mel Brooks’ “The Twelve Chairs” and Frank Perry’s “Diary of a Mad Housewife,” a twist of fate he calls a “wonderful double whammy for a young actor.” “The Deadly Trap” and “The Wrath of God” were less successful, and he made no films for several years.

Then, in 1977, came the Broadway revival of “Dracula,” marking what the actor calls “a major hallmark” in his life and a performance people still talk about. Two years later, he was embracing lines like “I am the last of my kind” and “I need your blood” as he scaled buildings, broke and entered, nipped at necks in John Badham’s film version.

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His career spans three decades and three mediums--film, stage and TV--sweeping in portrayals of Sherlock Holmes, Cyrano de Bergerac, Leonardo da Vinci, Antonio Salieri. He did a turn as Henry Higgins in Houston in 1991 and had a small role as Madonna’s ex-lover in “Body of Evidence.”

After spending the summer in New England with his wife, Ruth, and their two children, Langella hopes to re-create his Long Wharf Theatre portrayal of actor Junius Booth in Austin Pendleton’s new play “Booth” either in Los Angeles or New York. Recently, Langella got a group of actors together to read “Booth” for the Taper and Davidson.

Langella is not about to waste an opportunity. On the one hand, Langella says he considers most celebrity interviews an exercise in small talk and drivel and wants no part of it. On the other, he’s written three articles, and is almost done with a book on actors and their demons. He knows the power of the pen.

So when he woke up, before his apple and toast, he prepared for this interview. A scrawled list of topics comes out of his pocket as he tells the reporter: “You have this extraordinary forum and now, by your inviting me to speak, so do I.”

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Question: What is the first thing you want to talk about, the first thing on that list?

Answer: Acting as a noble profession. When you’re in a play that deals as explosively with ideas as this play does, it reaffirms your belief that acting is a noble profession.

I think that one of the biggest changes since I was in this room 26 years ago is everybody snapping away at your soul, grabbing it: “Tell us who you are. We want to get inside Frank Langella. We want to find out what makes him tick. What’s your Achilles’ heel? What are your sexual secrets? Your financial secrets?”

There’s this constant need in our society to expose, uncover, undo, look in, investigate. It flattens everybody out. It makes everybody the same. So we lose respect, regard and a certain kind of role model who is a professional in a field--someone who does what he does well because he studied it, practiced it and revered it.

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Q: Is that what you’ve done?

A: When I came here the first time, I was a New York boy, not aware very much of the fact of the (Taper) opening. I was as deeply egocentric, vain and self-involved as any actor that age can or should be. I was my own parade in those days. I didn’t pay much attention to anything else around me.

But in order to be the thing you want to be, you have to work like a dog at the thing you love. . . . Being catapulted is easy, and landing once on your feet is easy. Staying on your feet is hard and difficult for anybody in any profession and certainly in acting.

What helped me most were my failures and slumps--when I couldn’t get work, people weren’t interested in me or had written me off. It happens to every actor. I freely admit I have had very bad periods in my career, when I thought people maybe just didn’t want what I have. The only thing you have then to believe in is your craft.

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Q: What first drew you to that craft?

A: It was a way of expressing myself that was unavailable to me in life. If you’re lucky as you get older, you respect the craft and it becomes a skill. You start acting in spite of your neuroses, not because of them.

I was always a loner, and it was a way of belonging somehow. One of the safest places to be in the world is the stage. You know the parameters, the rules and the length of time you will be there. Within that framework, you are able to fly and soar and do many things your imagination dictates. It is structured abandon, and where can you get that in life?

Q: Did you feel that sort of freedom playing the Doge of Venice?

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A: (Director) Bob Ackerman sent “Scenes From an Execution” to me, (and at first) I felt the play on the page was dry. I didn’t think it could be brought to life in the kind of visceral way I like to act. I went and had lunch with Bob and he saw my character as a very passionate, excitable man--his name is Urgentino--who passionately wanted great art but was also the victim of his position.

Q: You’ve said you play Urgentino as passionate only some of the time and subdued on other nights.

A: There is no right in acting. I watch actors destroy themselves by trying to get it right. There isn’t any right. It’s a living, breathing thing, acting. It’s a movable feast. It changes, and you change. The idea that you should come into the theater every night and go out on the stage to reproduce what you did before is utterly absurd.

I’ve always loved investigating as an actor, but now I feel very strongly that it’s just death to an artist not to. But I want to be very clear--I have a lot of technique in my pocket as an actor. I don’t mean you go out there every night and just say, “Oh, well, when I came into the theater today, I was in the mood to play it with a German accent.” That’s bull----. I don’t mean that.

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Within the framework of the piece and respect to your colleagues and respect for the director’s ideas, you have this wonderful human being to play with every night and to bring on in different ways.

The thing about acting in the theater for me is if you’re not dangerous, if you’re not courageous, if you don’t think you have the right to be up there, get the hell off the stage.

Q: Can you also be dangerous that way in film?

A: I tried to in my last three pictures--"Dave,” “Body of Evidence” and Ridley Scott’s “1492.” On “Dave,” whenever Ivan would yell, “Cut,” my whole take on it would be, “OK, he’s printing it, he likes it, let’s see what else I can do.” Not, as it used to be when I was a younger actor--"how can I reproduce it?”

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What I just did is in the camera. The lens got it. It’s there forever. If Ivan wants take six, Ivan is going to print it up and put it in the movie. But maybe on take nine, I might do something wildly, wonderfully different and free, that he never thought of and I never thought of.

Q: Reitman says you mentioned at your audition that you were playing Bob Alexander as the devil, and Variety called your Alexander “so smarmy it would do John Sununu proud.” Where did that portrayal come from?

A: I once saw a politician say, at a press conference, “I’m in charge here"--when in fact he wasn’t--and I never forgot it. What I saw was someone whose need for power was so great, and I just stored it in my brain. When this part came along, it all came flooding back to me.

Q: Both Urgentino and Bob Alexander are more mature, less romantic roles for you. You have no desire to try to stop time?

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A: One of the most difficult things for an actor to do who has grown old in front of the public is to change with dignity while giving up things for which you were initially loved. I began as a juvenile--a young leading man with a full head of dark hair, very thin, romantic, a passionate-poet type. Then I went into my leading man years, which certainly went on for a long time.

Q: When did they stop?

A: I played Valmont (in “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”) five years ago at the Ahmanson, and in a way, it was the last romantic leading man I played.

I always tried to be ahead of Father Time. I tried to say, “You’re in your 50s now--start playing roles that are older.” Urgentino could be any age. He could be 40. He could be 70. I play him as me, as I look now.

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Q: Ivan Reitman says you showed up for rehearsals on “Dave” all suntan and slim, looking too good, too healthy for the part. He wanted you more sallow, more frightening looking. How did you feel about that?

A: I walked in and Ivan said, “I don’t want you to look like a ballet dancer in this part. I want (Alexander) to look like a well-fed politician.” When we met, I was on health food. Two weeks later, I was the junk-food king. I gained 30 pounds for it, and I’m still trying to lose the weight.

When I was on the set, I had a wonderful time watching everybody primp. Without an ounce of superiority, because I did it all. . . . If I were in a part that required it, I’d do it again. But I was in a part that didn’t require any primping. And it gives you a wonderful sense of freedom.

It would be wrong for me and I think it’s wrong for a lot of my colleagues to continue to try and be what we were. It’s just a mistake. How could I compete now anyway? And why would I want to compete with younger men who are coming up who should be playing the parts I once played? I now want to be playing parts more interesting to me and more exciting to me.

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Q: Change doesn’t frighten you?

A: I faced a big demon a while back and that was the fear of change that affects all of us, the “I used to be able to scale that wall” demon.

A fan was waiting at the stage door the other night, and handed me a picture of myself at 35. The cast gathered around and said, “Oh, you looked so Italian then, look how much dark hair you had, you were so much thinner.” But later, they came by and said, “I like you better now.” And they meant it.

I would have hated it if a fan had handed me a picture, and I’d walked into this room and seen a man who’d stretched his face back, dyed his hair and tried to hold on to (his youth). I would have disliked myself. I was able to look at the picture and remember what a pleasure 35 was on certain grounds, and now know what a pleasure 55 is, for different reasons.

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I have a list a mile long of faults that sometimes bring me to my knees in self-hatred. (One) is the vanity demon. Get over it. You had your years as a leading man. Step past it, because past it is freedom.

Q: You said before that you resent celebrity interviews. Do you think this conversation is invading your privacy that way?

A: No.

Q: Just checking.

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A: You asked to interview me. I said yes. I know what’s private and what I would always keep private. I won’t say anything that I don’t want printed.

Q: When we started, you called the experience of being back in this dressing room after 26 years “an interesting pair of bookends as an actor and as a man.” We’ve discussed what you meant as an actor. What sorts of revelations does it bring to you as a man?

A: This whole period of time, which began about three or four years ago, is a great time in life. It’s another whole subject I could discuss with you forever: male menopause--what I think I’m in.

There’s a great deal of attention paid and books written about this change of life in a woman, and really very little written about a man’s change of life.

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I have always felt the basis of everything in life is sexual, and I will maintain that to my dying day. We do most of what we do out of our sexual energy and our sexual needs. Countries have been destroyed by somebody’s sexual energy being thwarted by someone else’s, and wars are fought over it.

I think when the blood stops flowing as strongly and as energetically into your penis as it always has is when male menopause begins. Actually, it is the beginning of another kind of wonderful manhood in which you are able to be far more compassionate a human than you were before. I think the minute your erections begin to weaken, you start to think about life and mortality and your soul.

I know a lot of men who are now drinking too much or fooling around or got facelifts or dyed their hair--anything they could do to stave off the inevitable. It doesn’t mean you won’t see me on the street one day with brown hair again if I think it’s necessary. I’m hardly a saint. I’m hardly disinterested totally in my appearance.

But there’s something to be discovered when you don’t resist change. There’s something truly concurrently exhilarating and terrifying about not resisting the change in you. About getting up in the morning, and padding into the bathroom and looking in the mirror and saying: “This is what I’ve become.”

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Q: You’ve said in the past that neither the successes nor the failures last. Now that you’re in what appears to be a very successful time, do you feel the same way?

A: A friend of mine once said about someone else who had just become immensely successful and had dropped him, “Isn’t it funny that when people finally get on board, they pull a gangplank up behind them?”

I want to stay in the water. I like struggling. I like continuing to worry if the wave is going to drown me. And I’m afraid that if I ever get on the boat in a big way, I too might pull the gangplank up not only on other people but on my own creativity and my own self.

Q: But because you’re also occasionally producing and directing plays as well as acting, you can get on and off that ship, can’t you?

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A: Absolutely. I can produce. I can write. I can direct. I can do all these things. But I think one of the reasons I tend to stay in the water most of the time is I distrust the comfort. I distrust the acceptance. I distrust the safety.

I’m frightened that once in (the boat), it might occur to me to do nothing more than to make sure I stay there comfortably. And if that’s all I’m thinking about, I’ll miss a great deal of what’s waiting for me in that open water.


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